German lawmakers voted by a wide margin Friday to legalize same-sex marriage in a snap vote on the issue. The move to full marriage equality comes 16 years after Germany recognized civil partnerships, and makes Germany one of the last Western European countries to recognize same-sex marriage, prompting many to ask: what took them so long?
The delay, says Markus Ulrich, spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany, is down to Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union. Despite Germany’s reputation as a progressive society, and Merkel’s emerging role as leader of the liberal world order in the post-Obama era, the country is ruled by a party wedded to conservative Christian social values.
“The only party to blame… is the Christian Democrats,” Ulrich told VICE News. “They’re a conservative party and you have to remember the C in CDU stands for Christian. There have been some developments in the Protestant church in Germany but to be honest the Catholic church still has a hard time with it. They have a huge influence in this.”
Friday’s historic conscience vote was the result of a rapid series of events that saw the CDU’s longstanding opposition to marriage equality effectively unravel within a week.
Facing pressure from other political parties on the issue ahead of September’s election, Merkel answered a question from a gay man on the subject at an event Monday by acknowledging the broad public support for same-sex marriage and saying she would like to see a vote of conscience on the subject, where lawmakers would be allowed to vote according to their own convictions rather than along party lines. The day after her remarks, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Germany’s other major political party, said they would hold her to her word and called for an immediate vote.
But despite having opened the door for Friday’s vote, Merkel herself voted against same-sex marriage, telling reporters that for her the issue was “about the marriage of a woman and a man.” She had previously argued against gay marriage on the grounds of “children’s welfare,” and admitted that she struggles with the concept.
Ulrich said this was likely a reflection of the 62-year-old leader’s religious views – Merkel is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Members of the CDU’s more conservative sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, have also been vocally opposed to any change, with one CSU politician tweeting this week that the law change represented “further disintegration of the social order.”
But those views now appear out of step with broader public opinion, as opinion polls show a majority of Germans support same-sex marriage. “That this all happened so quickly shows how much effort was put in before, and that society was ready for this once the last wall, the CDU/CSU, fell,” said Ulrich.
The 393 – 226 vote, with four abstentions, means Germany now joins the majority of western European countries in granting same-sex couples full marital rights (Austria, Italy and Northern Ireland recognize civil partnerships instead – the same level of recognition the German gay and lesbian couples had in Germany until Friday’s vote).
Ulrich said the change would mean allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt children, and to be able simply declare themselves married, rather than “in a partnership,” thus avoiding having to disclose their sexual orientation to anyone they didn’t want to.
“But I think the most important impact is on a symbolic level,” he said. “This recognizes full equality between gay and lesbian relationships and straight ones.”